Chicago Bans Free Newspapers

By Mark Fitzgerald

CHICAGO A Chicago law passed unanimously last winter to bar the indiscriminate door-to-door distribution of menus, brochures, and other advertising flyers also bans many circulation practices for free newspapers.

The provision applying the ban to newspapers was discovered by Ron Roenigk, the publisher of two free community papers on the city’s Northwest Side, Inside, and Inside Lincoln Park. “It passed 50 to nothing — and I’m sure 49 of (the aldermen) didn’t even read the legislation,” he said in a telephone interview Monday.

Roenigk did read the law, however — and became alarmed at its implications. Chicago is awash in free papers, including dailies published by the city’s biggest newspaper, the Chicago Tribune.

Tucked into the 35th page of the 48-page law is a provision declaring, “It shall be unlawful for any person to distribute or to cause others to distribute…newspapers, periodicals and directories of any kind on any public way or other public place or on the premises of any private property in the city in such a manner that is reasonably foreseeable that such distribution will cause litter.”

Among the offending manners, the law continues, is “leaving stacks of paper on the ground without any means of securing them” — the common “dumped bundle” method used by many free publications.

The law specifies some acceptable means of distribution — including poly-bagging copies — that could exempt home delivery of the bigger free dailies such as Tribune’s Spanish-language Hoy. However, both Hoy and the commuter/youth daily RedEye are also distributed in open bundles in many places.

Fines range from $200 to $1,000 for each violation. And after three tickets for dumping stacks, the law provides, a company’s business license can be pulled by the city. So far, there does not appear to have been any enforcement of the law against newspapers, although there have been crackdowns in some neighborhoods on the distribution of handbills and menus.

Ironically, the clauses extending the litter bill to newspapers were added by an alderman in the distribution area for one of Roenigk’s papers. Ald. Manuel “Manny” Flores of the First Ward now wants to rewrite the section, and has invited Roenigk and other publishers to advise him on better language, Roenigk said.

“I think he’s afraid he’s going to be called out on this more than he already has been by me,” said Roenigk, whose newspapers carried an account of the law’s reach in last Thursday’s editions.

A spokesman for Flores did not immediately return a message seeking comment Monday.

In another irony, Roenigk changed the 20,000-distribution Inside Lincoln Park newspaper to home delivery when an anti-litter ordinance that was limited to certain neighborhoods took effect two years ago. “It’s our answer to a TMC (total market coverage) product,” he said. “We figured we could use it as the delivery vehicle for the pizza menus, flyers, etc.” that could no longer be slipped under doors or left on stoops.